Reading Time: 88 Minutes
Title: The Insidious Growth (of Betrayal)
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Dystopian
Relationship(s): Tony Stark & James Rhodes (friends), Tony Stark & Loki Odinson (mentor)
Content Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Kidnapping, Violence-Canon-level
Author Notes: Continuing the tragic adventures of Tony Stark: Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist, Sorcerer…?
Word Count: 62,000
Summary: Anthony Edward Stark has survived the crucible of Afghanistan only to find that the Ten Rings was merely the tip of the iceberg. A cabal plot to see him removed from the playing field, brought under control by whatever means possible. But Tony Stark is nothing if not resourceful. Even from the depths of the Oubliette, he discovers that he possesses the will to survive, as well as a surprising new ally in his struggle.
While Tony fights for his freedom, his best friend James Rhodes has his own battles to wage. Taking the place that in another universe belonged to the younger man; he is swept up into the world of aliens and grand battles as the Iron Soldier. Unaware of the truth, he becomes a tool of the same cabal who holds his friend prisoner. But secrets cannot last forever, and a time of reckoning is coming…
Chapter 20: Growth
Stretching his hands above his head, James groaned. He felt more than heard the bones and muscles in his back pop and shift with the movement.
Fighting – or drills – in the Iron Soldier suit had proved to be a work-out like-none-other. Even with Stark Industries’ ongoing improvements, the artificial intelligence that acted as James’ co-pilot could only do so much. Many of the suit’s controls were driven by James’ body movements. And, with the resistance provided by the suit’s bulk, every single motion required an extensive effort. Thus, despite his flight hours in the suit reaching the triple digits, James’ body still felt the impact every time he flew.
Returning his attention to the screen in front of him, James resumed typing. This time he was working on a brief documenting the Avengers’ most recent training session.
In the aftermath of the New York disaster, the triad of SHIELD, SI, and the US Military had engaged in a bit of horse-trading. As a result, Colonel James Rhodes had been transferred to the reserves.
This allowed him to transition into a full-time position as the commander of the Avengers, which had become its own separate division within SHIELD.
The Avengers team included himself, Steve Rogers aka Captain America, and a rotation of SHIELD agents. James’ agents included such skilled assets as Nat (Natasha Romanov aka the Black Widow) and Clint Barton (also known as Hawkeye), the expert marksman and archery specialist who’d been suborned by the alien attacker Nebula in the lead-up to the NYC disaster.
When the mind control that had caused him to be turned had been removed, Barton had immediately demanded a place in the fight against his former ‘boss’. Barton’s skills had proved quite useful in the fight, impressing James. Thus he had been agreeable to the man’s inclusion on the Avengers’ roster.
In brief, the Avengers were established as a first response team. While there was an entire division within SHIELD whose job was to conduct research and unearth intelligence regarding the invading aliens, James’ team had a different purview. The Avengers were to be deployed in cases of possible extra-terrestrial attack or when the scale of the battle required their specialized talents.
Manhattan had been completely demolished during the alien invasion, with untold property damage and a death toll that was still rising. At last count, the casualty list stood at over ten thousand people and millions – if not billions – of dollars in destruction. By the time that the wormhole had finally closed, the area directly beneath it had been completely obliterated. Only rubble remained in that area.
In addition, small squads of the alien invaders had pushed their way past the NYPD and SHIELD’s perimeter. From there they had attacked other parts of the New York Metropolitan Area. It was only the fact that aliens had some kind of ‘suicide’ trigger, dying when the wormhole closed, that had prevented a worse catastrophe.
The public formation of the Avengers Taskforce was a direct consequence of the attack. People demanded better protection, and the team who had – mostly – held their ground against the aliens were an easy option. Everyone hoped that a team which had been specially trained for such events would have better success in mitigating damage and minimizing casualties than a thrown together group.
James had agreed, in theory, and had signed on as a member. Being named the Avengers’ Commander was a bit of a surprise. He had initially expected Captain America to slot in that role. It was only after several discussions with – among others – Mister Stane, Director Fury, General Ross, and even the President – that James understood.
While Captain America was an excellent choice in terms of the public, as well as an excellent tactician, he had little to no training on the other responsibilities that came with a command. Besides, Rogers was still struggling to catch up to modern times. This included some of the military and law enforcement structures that James had spent half of his life following.
It was possible that eventually, with enough training, Rogers could be brought up to the point of command. For now, though, James was the logical choice.
Another thing that surprised James was the absence of Dr. Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, as a member of his team. The green berserker had been extremely useful in battle, despite his bad reputation. Besides, James had immense respect for the scientist’s intellectual abilities.
But, when he had asked, James was told that Dr. Banner had rejected the offer of Avengers membership. Thus, SHIELD had returned Dr. Banner to his previous location, the escort a way to show their appreciation for his help. According to Agent Coulson, James’ SHIELD liaison, the dual-natured scientist had asked to be left alone. He would only accept a call-up if the need was truly world-ending.
“Banner was concerned about the amount of collateral damage that his alter-ego caused during the battle,” Coulson had said. “Besides, his original bargain had been predicated on the demand that the Hulk was not to be roused. Obviously, we failed to live up to our side of the arrangement. So, it seemed only right to accept his requests.”
“Understood,” James had replied. And he did. Understand that is. He wasn’t unfamiliar with PTSD and similar conditions and suspected that Dr. Banner’s choice of escape was his coping mechanism. He wouldn’t want a reluctant teammate, not for this job.
James’ musings were interrupted by a knock on his office door.
“Come in,” he called, glad for the interruption. Paperwork really was his least favorite part of the job.
The door opened, and Agent Coulson stepped inside. Dressed in an unremarkable navy suit and tie, with thinning hair and an unprepossessing figure, the Agent looked like just another bureaucrat.
James, however, knew better. According to the stories from their mutual co-workers, the man was a certified badass, one who used his mild-mannered persona as a mask. Even his love of all things Captain America, while true, was designed as a way to make him less intimidating. How he had managed to maintain a low profile – and non-threatening persona – despite his high rank in SHIELD was one of the office’s greatest mysteries.
“Hey Phil,” James said, “What do you need?”
“Got a call from the Director. He needs to see us upstairs?”
“Us? The Avengers?”
“Not everyone. Or at least not yet. Just you and I for now.”
Nodding, James pushed his desk chair back. Coming to his feet, he snagged his suit jacket from a nearby hanger and settled it into place as he followed the other man out of his office.
Now that had been an adjustment, changing his work wardrobe from his customary air force uniform to civilian business wear. The process had made James think of Tony, especially when he dug some of the ties that the other man had given him over the years out of his closet and put them into circulation. Tony had a habit of picking ties with some kind of joke detail hidden beneath the surface. While unremarkable at first glance, many had a hidden message that only a discerning eye would notice.
For example, the one that James currently wore was made of a fabric printed with a stylized blueprint of the first SI-designed fighter that he’d flown. Of course, to the uninitiated, it was merely a pale blue tie with random darker blue lines scattered across its surface.
Agent Coulson had seen the tie before, but he still smiled in appreciation as the two men strode down the corridor leading from James’ office over to the elevator.
“The latest drill went well from everything that I’ve heard,” he commented casually. “It seems as if your team is coming together nicely.”
“For the most part,” James agreed. “There’s still a bit of adjustment to do in terms of tactics for specific environments, but we’re growing more accustomed to working as a cohesive unit.”
Coulson hummed an agreement.
Director Fury was indeed waiting for them in the conference room, along with Deputy Director Hill and a couple of agents who James didn’t recognize. At a guess, they were scientists or analysts of some stripe.
“You have a mission for us, sir?” He asked, coming to attention out of habit as Fury turned from his conversation with Hill.
“At ease, Rhodes, you know I don’t stand on ceremony,” Fury waved them towards the conference table. “At this stage all we have a possible… but I wanted you read in, just in case. Gentlemen?”
After a momentary stutter, one of the unknowns began to speak.
“Um, the science team has been using the network that Dr. Banner and Dr. Pym set up to track the Tesseract as a monitoring system. With it, we’ve been getting sporadic hits scattered worldwide. Nothing strong enough to indicate an actual wormhole, mind you. More of a… weak spot, a place where a wormhole could be created with less energy. If you had the right technology, anyways.”
With a tap on his computer, the man put up a map on the screen. The screen covered half of the conference room wall, while the map’s span covered the entire globe, Mercator style.
“Here are all of the sites where we still have detectors running.” A large collection of green dots were added to the map projection, each one marking a different spot. Most of them were in obviously populated regions, but there were also scattered detectors that had been placed specifically to fill gaps in the coverage. Another click and the dots disappeared, to be replaced by an even spread of orange dots.
“This is all of the hits prior to about six weeks ago. Notice that they’re pretty evenly spread, and relatively dim in intensity.”
Everyone nodded, James included.
“Well, over the past six weeks we’ve seen an upswing in the frequency of hits, as well as an increase in their intensity. Not only that, but the spread is no longer even. Now there’s a clear epicenter.”
The second set of dots, these ones crimson, were plotted overtop of the orange ones. In comparison to the barely visible orange dots, some of the red lights practically maxed out the screen’s capabilities. Sure enough, James could see the pattern that the speaker referenced.
“We’ve done a careful geographic projection. By our calculations, the epicenter is in the United Kingdom, Southern England to be exact.”
The map zoomed in to that section of the world, even as it showed a simulation of the mapping process.
“We haven’t yet been able to narrow it down too far, but we’re hopeful that with a few more days of data we should be able to give you a more precise location.”
Here the scientist paused, and his colleague took over.
“With our algorithm, we’ve been able to identify possible future sites, and have been deploying field teams to investigate. Of the roughly two dozen possibilities, so far three have yielded results of some kind. At two of the sites, the portable scanner picked up the same radiation spike that the monitoring network has seen in the past at roughly the predicted intensity. But it was the third that had us pushing things further up the chain.”
He swallowed heavily and then continued. “According to our team on-site, they located an open wormhole.”
“Barton. Status report,” James said in a bark.
The archer was the only Avenger on-scene at the wormhole site. He’d already been in the area for a routine SHIELD mission. So he had simply hitched a ride with the SHIELD locals to get there.
The rest of the team was en-route via Quinjet.
Nat was at the helm of the Quinjet with James. Rogers paced in the back already decked up in his Captain America gear. They were accompanied by a full STRIKE team, led by Agent Brock Rumlow. STRIKE would work with Rogers in the case that ground action occurred.
The Iron Soldier suit was strapped in the Quinjet’s rear compartment as well, but for now, James was flying co-pilot while monitoring chatter from those ahead.
“Well, it’s not like the other ones we’ve seen. It’s not actually, properly visible for one. The science types are able to see it with some of their equipment, but that’s it.”
Barton’s voice was matter-of-fact, but James could hear the tension hidden underneath. He knew that the scene reminded the archer of past events. If he’d had any other choice, James would not have had Barton be the one up close to the site. However, the circumstances were what they were.
The sound of a snicker broke James’ train of thought.
“…Even with the best sensory network in the world for such things, we still didn’t manage to be the first ones here. When the first group showed up, there were already a handful of kids playing with the thing.”
“… playing?” James was shocked. After everything with New York you’d think that people would know better.
“Yeah. Turns out, the wormhole isn’t consistent. It doesn’t always lead to the same place. Some of the time it actually loops back on itself. The kids were throwin’ junk into it and figured it out when sometimes the stuff they tossed into the vortex came shooting out from another place nearby. Cool, huh?”
“Right… Cool… идиот [idiot],” Nat’s dry sarcasm cut through Barton’s amusement. His tone sobered up. James knew that if he’d been in the room Nat would have smacked him upside the head to get the same effect.
“Heh… sorry. Anyways, according to the science dudes, the wormhole has some kind of barrier. It makes things so that they cannot get information about the other side. We tried sending a probe with a lead attached so that we can pull it back through, but the cord snapped. So, they’re assembling a set of probes in the hopes that at least one will manage to hit during a loop period.”
There was a bit of static, as Barton continued. “Meanwhile, I’m on watch duty, monitoring for any sign of visitors. Fingers crossed I’m not needed.”
He was about to say more when there was a second, more intense, burst of static. It calmed after a moment, but when it did Barton was gone. James immediately tried to get the agent back on the line. There was no response.
It wasn’t until several hours later that James finally got ahold of his missing team member.
After Barton’s com had failed to re-engage, James immediately reached out to one of the other SHIELD Agents on site. According to them, Barton had been standing close but not right next to the wormhole when there was a sudden flash of light and radiation. The light had emerged out of nowhere, blinding everyone. When they could see again, Barton was gone.
Despite his concerns, James had stayed focused on what he could control. Directing Nat to pick up speed, he gave Rogers and the rest of his onboard team a quick update. Then he called Headquarters.
Even with the limited monitor resolution, James could tell that Agent Coulson’s calm appearance hid the truth. The other man was very upset by the news.
Not that it’s surprising, James mused, Phil has been working with Barton for years. It’s only natural that they would share a close bond.
Director Fury, on the other hand, seemed more upset about the lack of information than anything else. He ordered them to, “get me something concrete, damn it.”
However, he did authorize James to “reassign additional local assets as needed in case Agent Barton’s disappearance was a precursor to another invasion.”
As he ended the call, James made one final comment. “We’ll get him back, Phil. Never leave a man behind, remember.”
In response, Phil – Agent Coulson – gave him a small smile and a nod. “God speed, Colonel Rhodes. And good luck.” With that, the screen went dark.
From her place in the pilot’s seat, Nat had already ramped up the Quinjet’s acceleration when James finished his call. Like James, she wanted to get to where Barton had disappeared as quickly as possible. Indeed, the change ended up shortening their flight time by over an hour.
Thus, the main Avengers team arrived on-site roughly ninety minutes after Agent Barton’s disappearance.
While the Avengers were still in the air, the SHIELD advance team took further precautions in securing the site. The entire shipyard where the wormhole anomaly had been discovered was put into lockdown. All civilians present were evacuated and placed into SHIELD quarantine, while the science team continued their data collection – though they were careful to keep some distance between themselves and the wormhole’s entrance this time.
At the same time, SHIELD troops were deployed around the perimeter of the quarantine zone, ready to provide backup as needed. Select individuals within the British government and law enforcement hierarchy were also notified regarding the situation. SHIELD did ask that the locals be placed on standby, but they were not incorporated into the on-site team.
Thus, the Avengers’ Quinjet was able to land right outside the abandoned building where the wormhole was located without any problems. From there, James and the rest of the team went straight to work.
A series of probes were sent through the wormhole, each with a slightly different design. All of them carried a coded message for Agent Barton. The message was simple – RETURN AND REPORT. James could only hope that at least one would make it through.
It was maybe two hours later that there was another burst of radiation and light and Agent Barton reappeared. James had begun contemplating strategies for sending troops through the portal, which he thankfully canceled.
To the naked eye, Barton appeared to be in much the same condition as before he had vanished. The science team’s instruments – still pointed toward the wormhole and thus Agent Barton – told a different story.
Intense levels of radiation with a signature similar to, but slightly off the Tesseract or Scepter were emanating out in all directions from Agent Barton’s body.
“Clint,” Nat called, stepping into the other agent’s view. “What happened?”
“Nat?” the recently returned agent replied with a question of his own. “How’d you get here so fast? I thought you guys were still two hours out.”
Natasha Romanov gave her comrade a tight smile. “It’s been over four hours, Clinton.”
“Wha-? But-?” Barton stumbled over his words, “I was in there for maybe five minutes.”
Interesting, James thought. Time differential… or memory loss.
“Agent Barton. Report,” he said briskly, wanting to keep Barton focused. A straightforward task would keep him from spiraling. Besides, he could use whatever information that Barton could give him.
It was clear that the normally relaxed agent understood the seriousness of the situation. He drew himself up to attention. “I was just speaking to you, sir, while monitoring the portal from a distance of a half-dozen feet. There was a flash of light, which blinded me. When my vision returned, I found myself in an underground cavern of some kind. While it was mostly dark, there was some form of natural illumination that made it possible to make out the general shape of things. Fortunately, my kit includes a small flashlight.”
Here Agent Barton patted his pants pocket, where his flashlight was stored.
“Using the light as a guide, I located a pillar maybe ten feet in front of me. It looked like an obelisk of some kind, with each of its four sides roughly twenty inches across and its height extending beyond the range of my light. The entire surface was covered with carvings – some kind of rune-type language it looked like.”
He hesitated and then continued. “I could… hear… a sort of hum which emanated from it, encouraging me to approach. Regrettably, I admit that I couldn’t resist the draw. I quickly found myself standing directly in front of the closest surface. As the hum’s intensity increased, I put out a hand to touch.”
Barton looked down at his right hand, whose palm and wrist was covered by a leather guard, leaving only the last third of his fingers exposed.
“The moment that my fingertips made contact it was like they had been super-glued. I couldn’t pull free. Even worse, I accidentally got my other hand stuck while trying to dislodge the first.” Barton grimaced in memory. “I was still trying to pull free when I felt… something. It was almost like a shock; like I’d accidentally touched a live wire, but not quite. It poured into me until I could almost see this dark, black lightning flickering over my fingertips.”
“After what felt like ages – but also just a second – my fingers were released. I immediately headed back to where I had been deposited into the cave. I took one final step forward… and found myself here.”
As Barton finished speaking, there was another flash from the wormhole site.
“The portal’s radiation signal, it’s dissipating,” one of the science team called.
“I guess its purpose… was complete?” another hypothesized hesitantly, her tone uncertain.
“Or it just faded like all the others,” the first scientist rebutted. “We’ve already observed that previous weak spots were of short duration. It would make sense that even a full wormhole would follow the same pattern.”
“Sir,” a third scientist summoned James to his side, gesturing at his monitor. “The signal from Agent Barton… It’s not fading.”
“Damn it.” James shook his head with a sigh. “Barton, it looks like you’re in for some more fun. Agent Rumlow, I want your team to escort Barton back to London HQ for testing.”
“Sir,” the STRIKE team acknowledged James’ command in sync.
“And Rumlow,” James added, “make sure that no one harasses him along the way. We wouldn’t want another incident like last time.”
Agent Barton had already received a certain amount of flak from his fellow agents in the aftermath of New York. Those who’d lost friends or were injured during the Helicarrier attack. There had been one or two STRIKE members among that group.
“Yes sir,” Rumlow agreed. “My men know better, but some of the locals could be trouble. We’ll make certain that nothing happens to Hawkeye on his way to the lab.”
Chapter 21: A Crack in the Universe
Despite the background noise of Loki’s speech, the bulk of Tony’s attention was focused upon the page before him. As a reward for his progress in mastering the basics of magic – still a weird thought – the Frostling had introduced his protégé to a specialized field that was certain to capture the engineer’s imagination.
With their rigid, logical structure and common use amongst craftsmen and Armorsmiths, the engineers of Asgardian society, runes were easier for Tony to pick up. As such, Tony had already begun to incorporate runic elements in the designs that he sketched as a hobby/distraction from his imprisoned state.
This particular design was a modified version of the armored suit that he’d used in Gulmira, one of many that Tony had sketched out over the years. This particular design was intended as a stealth suit, as the runic sequence that Tony was trying to plan out was intended to direct attention away from the object. If successful, it would be a sort-of ‘notice-me-not’, as the term from Harry Potter went.
“ANTHONY EDWARD STARK.”
This time there was no ignoring Loki’s voice. It practically boomed down the entire corridor.
“What?!” Tony replied, exasperated, as he looked over in his friend’s direction.
The green-eyed man was standing right up against the front of his cell, those spectacular orbs locked on the space directly before the front wall of Tony’s cell.
“And why are you staring at my wall like that?” he asked, confused.
“I don’t see anything, Princess. Just the same old boring walls we’ve had for years.”
The master sorcerer sighed. “Not with your eyes, little mage, but with your Sight.”
With a nod, Tony reached down inside himself to find that little twist which activated his mage sight. After over two years of study, it was the work of a moment to pull it up.
To Tony’s Sight the section of the wall that Loki had indicated glowed. A jagged crack trailed diagonally for maybe eighteen inches, with a bright golden light leaking through it. The light’s intensity varied; as if the crack was deeper in certain sections.
“Okay. That is some freaky Doctor Who-looking thing, that is. What is it?”
Shaking his head, the alien sighed. “Your Midgardian references are baffling at the best of times, my apprentice. That… is the beginning of a naturally occurring portal. A weak spot in the fabric of the Cosmos.”
“And that means…”
“It is a sign. The Convergence approaches. But more importantly, it is an opportunity.”
Tony frowned. What could his buddy mean?
“Do you recall what I told you about Heimdall?”
“Your mentor dude, the Gatekeeper of the Bifrost, right? He’s the one who helped you learn magic and deal with your dad’s bullshit. An all-seeing god. One who watches over the nine realms from his place at the edge of the rainbow bridge? But what does that have to do with this crack-thing?” Tony gestured towards the odd view.
“Do you recall what I told you about Heimdall’s vision and these…?”Here Loki gestured towards the gold cuffs, which had been exposed by his upraised arm.
“Um… they block his ability to See you, right frosty?”
“Indeed. However, that facet of the cuffs has a limited range. If, for example, I were to be relocated to another SHIELD facility, Heimdall would be able to see this cell. Now, if you recall another name for a portal is…”
“Wormhole! You mean… we can travel through…”
“No, Tony. That portal is far too small. But… YOU CAN send a message through. If we imbue it with the right magic, once the portal vanishes, Heimdall’s sight will be drawn to it. With his knowledge of seidr, he should recognize its significance and send someone to retrieve it.”
“Excellent…” Tony couldn’t resist the chance to use the classic line as he tapped the tips of his fingers together. Then he grew serious. “So… How are we doing this?”
“We begin with meditation…”
With a sigh, Tony pushed the page before him away and rose from his seat. Taking three steps to one side, he settled himself onto the bed in his now customary pose. Despite its usefulness in the practice of magic, meditation would never be his favorite activity.
But even the possibility of escape? That… Well, that was worth almost anything.
Chapter 22: Renewed Alliances
As James dodged, an energy blast slammed into the wall behind him. The impact left a large burn scar across its surface. Looking back towards where it had come from, James could see a host of pale creatures in dark leathers pouring through the hole that had just been blasted in the opposite wall.
“Well, that’s just great,” he murmured to himself.
It had been less than twenty-four hours since Clint – Agent Barton’s – return through the portal carrying an unexpected passenger.
In that time there had been four manifestations of its presence.
The first had been an accident. One of Rumlow’s men had been a bit too abrupt in escorting Clint toward the transport. That had been relatively minor, as a quick, directed burst was the only visible effect. The burst was a bit like an electric shock; one that quickly dissipated.
The second was more emotionally driven, the result of certain whispers that Agent Barton would normally have been able to ignore. But with his sensitivity driven up by his passenger, the comments were a trigger. The levels of esoteric radiation that his body emitted began to grow, invisible at first before gradually transitioning into a dark red-black fog. Those who found themselves in the fog showed physical symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweating; all signs of hysteria or a panic attack.
It took a call from Agent Coulson to calm Barton down enough to lower the emanations to reasonable levels. But the emission levels had remained higher than in the early readings – understandable given the emotional drain on the man.
Manifestations three and four were a direct result of some of the lab tests, as the SHIELD scientists did their best to gather data. The energy protected its host from outside harm, including any attempt to collect blood or other material samples. Despite this complication, Medical was able to determine that while the energy was protective in some ways, it was harmful in others.
Agent Barton’s physical condition was deteriorating with every minute that the mysterious energy remained inside his body. From what James had seen, if they couldn’t find a way to extract Barton’s parasite he’d be dead within a week.
Down in the basement, the science geeks had been working frantically since this whole mess started. They were searching for ways to either destroy or extract the parasitic energy, with no success. It was simply too ‘alien’.
And now… now they were under attack.
A few minutes ago, a wormhole had opened up in the lobby of the London branch of SHIELD. In appearance similar to the New York City wormhole, though drastically smaller in scale, this time the alien invasion came in the form of infantry.
James had been standing guard over Barton when the call came in about the attack.
In an effort to protect the rest of the agents from the parasite’s emanations, Barton had been placed inside of an isolation room as a temporary holding cell. In solidarity for their teammate, James, Nat, Rogers, Rumlow and the others had volunteered to take turns ‘standing guard’ – keeping him company, really. The attack had begun in the middle of James’ shift.
Since Barton was a likely target, James had decided to remain where he was.
Still, as the ground commander for the Avengers, he had to direct the field of battle. He assigned Rogers to lead the charge against the enemy. At the same time, he donned the Iron Soldier suit and took up a guard position at the entrance to the labs.
Despite the heavy opposition that Rogers, Nat, Rumlow and the rest of the STRIKE team, as well as the general SHIELD personnel, had offered, it seemed that the alien intruders had managed to infiltrate through headquarters and had reached James’ station. They must have a tracker of some kind, one that was leading them straight to Agent Barton.
“Shit,” James said as he returned fire, blasting the foremost attackers back. “Rodgers, I’ve got hostiles at my position.”
“Copy that, Colonel.” Rumlow was the first one to respond. “Captain’s busy at the moment, trying to push the latest wave back. I’ve got a squad headed your way. They should be coming through the stairwell doors any second now.”
Sure enough, the nearby door slammed open, and half-dozen black-suited men rushed out. Taking up position on either side of James, they poured heavy fire into the swarming aliens.
It was clear that this batch of invaders was more intelligent than the last attackers. These aliens withdrew to the other side of their manufactured entry instead of simply charging forward into the heavy fire. James was certain that they were merely regrouping and waiting for reinforcements before resuming their attack. Still, he did appreciate the opportunity to re-deploy his group more efficiently.
Using the strength of the Iron Soldier suit and the excess of rubble scattered around the room, James and his team placed themselves in prime positions for defending the entry behind them – the only way down into the lab.
“We can’t let them get to Barton,” James said over the com. “Who knows what they want with the power that he carries.”
“Yes, sir,” the agents chorused.
There was a crackle on the radio and Rogers’ voice rang out.
“We’ve got new incoming! These ones flashed down from the sky, landing just outside the main entrance. Hold on… the new arrivals… they’re attacking the original invaders.”
Allies? Or just a different set of invaders?
Rogers’ voice faded out as the sounds of hand-to-hand combat echoed through the coms. James could hear the clanging sound of metal on metal. It seemed that at least some of the invaders fought with blades instead of guns.
Through the hole in the wall across the way he spotted movement and tensed up, but it seemed like his direct adversaries were retreating. Still, James and his squad kept their focus despite the absence of further attacks.
Meanwhile, over the coms, they could hear the invaders being pushed back by SHIELD troops working in concert with the new arrivals. From what he could tell, these warriors spoke what sounded like English as they shouted imprecations at the pale, pointy-eared hostiles.
It took another half-hour before the intruders retreated. Their wormhole then vanished in a flash, leaving devastation and dead bodies in its wake.
A fresh squad of SHIELD combat troops came down to James’ position, giving him the freedom to join Rogers, Nat, Rumlow and their tentative allies in one of the upstairs conference rooms. The head of the London office, an Agent Hand, was present. The newly-arrived Agent Coulson, who had been in transit from the Helicarrier in the US, also joined them.
Stepping into the conference room, James was reminded of the Renaissance Faire that he’d visited with Tony back in college. The new arrivals were dressed in leather and metal armor and carried bladed weapons – swords and the like. It was clear that the design was functional, not decorative, as both the armor and the weapons showed evidence of use in the recent conflict.
The clear leader of the group carried a massive war hammer wrapped around one wrist, one whose surface flashed as if it carried static electricity in its core.
“Greetings to you, Warriors of Midgard,” the tall blonde said in a booming voice. “I am Thor, Prince of Asgard, and these –.” Here the Prince gestured behind him, where four other foreigners stood, “are my comrades at arms. Sif,” the only woman inclined her head; “and the Warriors Three. I bring greetings from my father, Odin All-Father, and offer our services defending your realm against the dastardly attacks of the denizens of Svartalfheim, the Dark Elves.”
It was this final word – elves – that finally triggered James’ memory.
Back in high school, he had, for a short time, played a certain fantasy card game. The game had used Norse mythology as an inspiration, including the gods of that pantheon as well as several non-human races. James had even played as Thor on a couple of occasions.
“Wait…” he interrupted the blonde. “Thor. As in, Norse God of Thunder, Thor?”
“You have heard of me, armored warrior? That is excellent news. My father was unsure if this Realm was still aware of our existence.”
“As a myth, yeah,” James agreed, raising the face-plate on his suit so that he could look the other man directly in the eye. “But myths are no guarantee of friendship.”
Glancing around at the rest of the humans present, James could see that they were ready to back his play, so he continued. “Our legends speak of Thor’s visit over a thousand years ago. How can you possibly be the same person?”
“Ah, I had forgotten that Midgardians held such short life-spans. Tis true, I was no more than a stripling in those days, a mere apprentice in the warrior arts. Still, the All-Father and his army protected Midgard then from Frost Giants, as they do now from Dark Elves.”
With an internal shrug, James decided that acceptance – or at least the appearance of it – was the best approach… for now.
“And we do appreciate your assistance. Forgive me; I have yet to introduce myself. My name is Colonel James Rhodes, Iron Soldier and representative of the Earth and the agency known as SHIELD, in whose facilities you currently stand. My team, known as the Avengers, are those who you have recently joined in the battle against the – what did you call them – the Dark Elves. They include Steven Rogers, Natasha Romanov, and Brock Rumlow.”
As he spoke, James waved towards each of the other Avengers in the room. The men, and woman, each offered a nod when their names were mentioned. “We are also joined here by Agents Victoria Hand and Philip Coulson of SHIELD, our hosts in this facility.”
Moving toward the conference table, James gestured for the visitors to take a seat. “I am afraid that the attack means that many of our readily available resources are limited, but can I offer you all some water?”
Nat and Agent Coulson pulled bottles from the room’s mini-fridge, passing them around as everyone claimed a chair. James was nervous at first whether or not the wheeled chairs would be able to handle the weight of his suit. Fortunately, the chair that he had claimed did little more than groan and sag, as his weight pressed its castors down into the floor quite severely. He wouldn’t be able to move much in the chair, but it did manage to keep him upright.
“Now then, shall we discuss today’s events?”
It took a couple of hours, but James and the others managed to hammer out initial terms for a temporary alliance with the Asgardian visitors. The terms would have to be ratified by Fury and the other higher-ups and would be subject to further negotiations, but James was at least comfortable that the two groups would be able to work together for now.
At the very least, the terms would stand in the likely case of the so-called ‘Dark Elves’ return. While Agent Coulson had volunteered to escort the ‘healer’ in Thor’s group, a woman named Eir, to the lab so that she could evaluate Agent Barton’s condition, James and the others had a different task.
They were to make friends.
Having extracted himself from the bulk of his suit, James – and Nat and Rogers – had volunteered to escort Thor and his companions down to the SHIELD facility’s main cafeteria. There, they would be able to replenish their energy with a much-needed meal.
Since the site had not been in the line of fire earlier, it remained mostly functional in the aftermath of the attack. Now, it was packed full of SHIELD agents, both the London locals and the fresh reinforcements – who had been trickling in from other bases – including the rest of James’ team.
Given the number of visitors and the disruptions, it was unsurprising that the kitchen staff had decided to outsource some of their work. Off to one side of the room, the cafeteria’s serving tables were packed. They were filled with a sprinkling of their normal offerings as well as stacks of take-out from several local restaurants. James spotted pizza, sandwich trays, fresh curries, and many more.
Those Asgardian warriors who had not been a part of the negotiations were already in the room, seated with the SHIELD troops whom they had fought alongside. From the looks of things, they had already been enjoying the food and company.
“A feast!” Prince Thor boomed from his place beside Rogers, “a fitting way to seal our new agreement. Come, shield-brothers, let us share in this bounty.”
Leaving Rogers – who had bonded with the fellow-blonde – and Nat to entertain the Prince, James instead chose to escort the beautiful female warrior, the woman Thor had named as Sif.
“Tell me,” she asked James once they had collected their food and sat down. “Are there many female warriors here on Midgard, or is she an exception?”
She looked so hopeful that James couldn’t help but smile. “Well, Nat is one of a kind.”
Her face began to fall, but he held up a hand to forestall a response and continued. “However, we do have numerous female agents here at SHIELD and most of Earth’s – Midgard’s? – countries have some female troops. Men still far outnumber women in the military, especially in direct combat roles, but it is not too shocking these days. Not in the way that it used to be.”
“That is excellent.” Sif’s voice had a bit of a rasp, likely the result of past injury, but it didn’t subtract anything from her beauty. While he was not the ladies’ man that his friend Tony used to be, James still appreciated a handsome woman. Indeed, the dark-haired warrior was very attractive; her muscular form appealing in its fitted armor.
Catching himself staring, he cleared his throat and responded. “I take it that such is not the case on your world?”
Sif shook her head. “Nay. It is customary for all young persons to receive some training in the fighting arts. However, once one reaches their adolescence the expectation is that one will focus solely on such areas of study as are required for one’s adult career. Since women are forbidden from taking up positions in the Einjerhar – our army – it is expected that we receive no further training for battle. There are few exceptions. At one time, there was once a branch of shield maidens who fought for the All-Father – the Valkyries – but they were disbanded eons ago.”
“Then,” James hesitated, “how did you-?”
The woman warrior flashed him a sharp-edged smile. “I was stubborn. As a youth, I had been one of several young noble maidens included among the princes’ companions; those who shared their tutors. Thus, I received my basic training alongside Thor. I excelled, doing better than many of the young noble sons, and thus drew the older prince’s eye. When the time came for our group to transition into more specialized training, I was determined that I would follow in the path of the Valkyries. I would become a warrior.”
Her smile grew wistful; as if recalling a fond memory. “The Prince – and, though I didn’t know it at the time, his younger brother – was one of the few who encouraged me in my ‘unwomanly’ pursuit. He would share his instructors’ tips when I was banned from the training fields; even sparred with me in secret when my parents forbade me from continuing my studies.”
“Eventually I managed to convince my parents of my sincerity. To be honest, the main reason that they agreed was that they realized that my field of study would put me in closer contact with the Prince. It is their fondest wish that we would be betrothed. Instead, Thor has named me one of his companions, a warrior who fights at his side. It is a place that I am proud to be even now.”
James was fascinated by this look at an alien culture. He had no doubt that Sif was a formidable fighter and one who was fanatically loyal to her prince. Given that the relationship had begun in childhood, it was unlikely that the apparently un-subtle Asgardian royal had done it for manipulative reasons, but James would bet that the Prince’s parents were not unaware of the situation.
“So,” he said casually, redirecting the conversation. “Tell me. Is your prince always so… boisterous?” He gestured over to where Thor was regaling his tablemates with a story. It must be an exciting one, given the quantity and intensity of his body movements and exclamations.
“Prince Thor has always been one to embrace passion,” Sif admitted with a wry grin, “though he has grown more temperate in recent decades.”
Temperate? That’s restrained?
“The younger prince, Loki, was taken from us by a most perfidious villain two decades ago. After my Prince’s intemperance caused the monster’s death before he could be interrogated for information on his brother’s whereabouts, he determined to change. Since that time, the search for his brother consumes my liege’s thoughts. He has also become more dedicated to the preparations for his future role as the All-Father in honor of the missing prince.”
James was intrigued.
A mysteriously lost alien royal, how curious. Sounds like something out of a fairy tale. But then we do live in a world that would not be out of place in a work of fiction.
Chapter 23: Convergence
“Brace yourself, my apprentice, the Convergence arrives.”
Loki’s voice was tight, a sign of the stress he was under.
Tony snorted and muttered, “No shit, Sherlock,” under his breath as he nodded before pressing his back into the padded corner that he’d created. Set where the wall of his cell met the base of his slab ‘bed’, all of the hard surfaces had been covered as best as Tony could do with his limited supplies.
He had been feeling the build-up to the Convergence for the past two days.
It had started as a nearly sub-sonic drone that Tony could feel in his teeth. From there it had grown into a nearly constant thrumming, one whose intensity made it nearly impossible to function. Though the sound was not physical in and of itself, the stress it caused gave Tony an unbearable tension headache. According to the more experienced sorcerer, Tony’s sensitivity to the event was a natural consequence of his current level of training. He had opened up his awareness of magical phenomena and had not yet learned to construct the necessary shields to block it back out.
Normally, an apprentice’s master would be there to provide shielding during this period. However, with Loki’s magic constrained by the shackles that he wore, he was unable to do so. Thus, Tony was forced to suffer through the pain with meditation the only possible (limited) source of relief.
Across the hall, Tony could see his friend suffering through a different, though equally painful, problem. Normally, the Frost Giant’s magic would be celebrating the arrival of the Convergence. For sorcerers across the Realms, such a mystically powerful event was a source of strength. Their magical pathways were flooded with ‘free’ energy and their reserves were drastically enhanced.
However, the bands which held Loki captive had a poor response to his instinctual attempt to gather ‘free’ energy. They interpreted the involuntary action as an attempt to nullify their power. Thus, not only did they prevent the imprisoned alien from claiming the bounty, but they also offered punishment. Loki was continually being hit with the magical equivalent of an electric shock, one whose intensity only increased as the Convergence approached.
Groaning as a sharp cry of pain broke his concentration, Tony’s eyes slit open just enough to see through the double layer of Plexiglas.
In the other cell, Loki’s prone form had bowed upwards, as if going through a seizure. Despite the haze of pain, the genius could see that Loki had reverted to his natural form. He caught a hint of rich blue and a flash of ruby eyes rolled back in their skull.
How much longer can we last? Tony couldn’t help but wonder. We have to be reaching the peak of the Convergence soon!
As if his thoughts were the trigger, a second later Tony’s sense of the Convergence began to spike. He barely had time to catch his breath before everything… changed.
At that moment, Tony found himself thrown out of his body, his mind traveling instantaneously to far distant places.
He was with Rhodey…
The older man was fighting pale alien warriors in a modified version of Tony’s suit in the atmospheric halls of the observatory in Greenwich, England. While the Air Force officer fought proficiently – clearly well accustomed to the armor – he was not as smooth as Tony had been with JARVIS as a co-pilot.
At Rhodey’s side were a number of other fighters. Most of them wore uniforms that were recognizable to Tony, thanks to his time in their custody. They were Agents of SHIELD.
Then another man strode up to Rhodey’s side. Tony glanced over and then did a double take.
Was that… Captain America!? Incredible. Dad would be ecstatic.
Besides the human fighters, Tony noticed that Rhodey and the others battled alongside a number of warriors in quasi-medieval garb.
With his mage sight active in this state, however, Tony could see that they were far from human. Both the warriors and their weapons were aglow with light from embedded enchantments, the work of multiple mages.
These warriors were led by a beefy blonde wielding a blocky stone hammer that absolutely blazed with the scale of its enchantments and sparked with lightning to even the uneducated eye. From Loki’s stories, Tony would bet his ass that this was his friend’s beloved foster brother, Crown Prince Thor of Asgard.
A blink and Tony was gone from Rhodey and the fight in England…
Instead, he was now in the main boardroom of SI’s New York office, where Obie was meeting with the company’s board of directors. The battle in England was streaming in the background as the table full of old white men discussed business. They were talking about a new product line of drone soldiers, which were in appearance clearly inspired by Tony’s (Rhodey’s) suit.
Looks like Obie completely threw away everything I promised after Afghanistan, at least as far as the business was concerned. Not that surprising, I guess. He clearly wasn’t happy about it even before I ‘left’. Still, I hope he didn’t derail everything. The Foundation work that I began with Nakia and the Wakandans has a clear publicity benefit, so it may have been left intact.
As Tony was reading over Obie’s shoulder, an email popped up on the screen in front of the CEO. It was from Director Fury of SHIELD, a ‘request’ for technical support from SI. Along with the request, Fury included a vague threat of exposing ‘the truth about Stark’. When Obie’s only response was a small grimace, Tony knew that his suspicions were confirmed. At the very least his old mentor knew that whatever lie had been told to the public was wildly inaccurate.
As if the mere thought of Fury were enough to summon him, Tony found himself hurtled off to a new location…
This time he landed on a futuristic-looking bridge of a massive vessel. Through the massive bank of windows that ran across the front of the space, all Tony could see was a blue sky dotted with clouds. Below him were rows of SHIELD workers at computer stations, their uniforms clearly marked with the organization’s logo.
Tony found himself standing beside the ‘captain’s place, right next to the ever-impressive Director Nicholas Fury. Unlike the rest of the agents on the bridge, Fury did not wear a SHIELD uniform. Instead, he was clothed all in black, including what looked like the same trench coat and matching eyepatch that he had worn the last time that Tony had seen him.
From his position beside Fury, Tony could easily spy on the various SHIELD crew members as they worked at their stations. Reading their screens, he soon determined that the space in which he stood was a mobile command center for SHIELD, the bridge of a massive, flying aircraft carrier, a Helicarrier.
At that moment, the Helicarrier was en-route to England, where they were preparing to reinforce the agents who were on the ground in Greenwich. Tony caught a few snippets as agents swapped updates about casualties and damage on the ground. Of course, not all of the agents were hard at work. For instance, off to one side of the bridge, Tony spotted a bit of furtive movement from one of the stations. The agent seated there was clearly bored, as he was switching between his nominal monitoring station and a game of Galaga, keeping a wary eye out for anyone else spotting his delinquency.
Even SHIELD agents can’t all be drones, huh? Tony thought with a smirk.
He would have spied a bit more, but once again he felt himself being pulled away…
This time, he found himself in a very different space from the previous visitations. He was standing in the corner of a small cinderblock-walled cell, one that was much like where Tony himself had been kept back when he first arrived in the Sandbox.
Just as in Tony’s cell, there was little present other than a single bed covered with a lumpy mattress, threadbare blanket, and flat pillow. Seated on the bed was the cell’s occupant, a middle-aged man dressed in rumpled olive green pants and a t-shirt, his hair a tangle of dark brown that showed clear signs of being slept in.
As Tony watched, the cell door swung open abruptly and a trio of visitors strode into the cell. There was an Army General in perfectly starched dress greens and a full chest of adornments, followed by a pair of privates, low ranked soldiers armed with odd, massive guns.
“Banner,” the General barked, “it’s time to earn your keep.”
Moving slowly but evenly, the rumpled prisoner rose up from where he sat on his bed. Tony was surprised when the two armed soldiers tensed up quite dramatically the moment that the detainee began to move, it seemed like an over-reaction for such an ordinary action.
The General continued to speak.
“Keep in mind,” he said firmly, “that my men are armed with advanced stun guns fully capable of knocking you out before you could even begin to transform into the monster.”
His captive, the man apparently named Banner, simply sighed in response.
“I am well aware of my situation here, General Ross. You hold all of the cards. Besides, I am the one that least wants the other guy out.”
“Good. Keep it that way. Your heroics in New York may have earned you some good will, but not enough to pay for all of the damage that you’ve caused. You are mine, Banner. Mine for whatever – long or short – remains of your miserable life.”
With that, General Ross turned on his heel and marched out of the cell. Though clearly reluctant, Banner followed, passing in front of the two guards as he moved forward. Once he had passed, the pair of armed guards immediately turned and followed, keeping their weapons hot and ready to shoot as they did.
Before Tony could follow the odd train, he once more found his perspective changing…
This time, he didn’t settle on a single spot. Instead, he was given a multitude of flashes.
His lab in Malibu, empty and abandoned, with the bots covered in dust sheets and all of the lights on JARVIS’ server out.
The village of Gulmira in Afghanistan. Once home to Tony’s Afghan mentor and colleague Yinsen, now it was nothing more than a pile of rubble. There was no sign of any inhabitants.
The manufacturing floor of a Stark Industry plant, where a line of missiles under construction ran alongside another line filled with half-complete drone warriors.
An overhead view of New York City, its skyline still marred with damage done by the alien invasion even though it had been more than a year since the attack had occurred.
Afghanistan once again, or at least somewhere in the Middle East. This time a cave filled with women in traditional Muslim garb including long robes and hajibs. It was clear from the shape of their garments that they were not there by choice. Among them, Tony caught sight of a familiar face: Nakia!
The images kept coming faster and faster until they blurred into a grayish haze.
After another moment, Tony’s consciousness was once more thrust outward. This time, instead of jumping through space, he found himself thrown to another time…
Scenes appeared, filled with the younger forms of those who played a significant role in his life.
Tony watched as his father powered up the vita rays; a part of the experiment that would create Captain America. He saw the friendship that developed after the war between Howard and his Aunt Peggy, watched them work together to build the organization that would become SHIELD.
He saw his second father, Edwin Jarvis, as he came into Howard Stark’s service and his involvement in that entire affair.
Tony watched as a young Obadiah Stane worked his way into Stark Industries until he stood at Howard’s side, all the while whispering ideas into Howard’s ears.
He watched his parents meet and fall in love, Tony’s own conception, and birth, as well as several miscarriages.
He watched as a young Tony grew up with a loving mother, an absent father, a beloved butler (father), and a mountain of expectations.
He winced his way through the painful years in boarding school, cheered as MIT came and Rhodey – in all of his collegiate glory – entered the scene, taking his place at Tony’s side.
Then came that fateful December night… If he had been corporeal, Tony would have hidden his eyes from view. Instead, he was forced to watch as Howard and Maria climbed into the car, a briefcase placed inside of the trunk by a distracted Howard. He waited reluctantly for the expected crash, but then… Wait, what was that? That wasn’t an accident. That was murder!
Tony strained his senses, trying hard to identify the mysterious assassin, but before he could do so the scene changed once more.
Wait. Go Back! He tried to scream, but it was no use.
Tony watched, disconsolate, as the timeline continued to move forward.
Even the sight of DUM-E and his other early creations, followed by life as the Merchant of Death and the creation of JARVIS, were not enough to distract him.
It was only when Pepper Potts appeared that he finally re-focused.
He hadn’t seen her earlier, had he?
Tony watched as the young Pepper confronted his own younger self with her discovery, winning his respect and becoming Tony Stark’s greatest personal assistant and friend.
Obie had better have treated her right. Tony thought as he watched his younger playboy self. That young man was thoroughly enjoying the high life, wasting so many opportunities to do better.
Then came Afghanistan, and the attack on the convoy.
Tony shuddered as he watched the SI missile – the cause of his permanent jewelry – explode. His spectral eyes widened as he watched Obie – Stane – meet with the Ten Rings and realized that his mentor had been the initiator of the entire thing.
Then came the camp, open-heart surgery, Yinsen, the Arc Reactor, the Mark I.
Next Tony saw his escape, Yinsen’s death, ‘Mercy’, and the return to the US.
After that, there was the press conference, Obie scheming with that General from earlier… Ross?… the visit from King T’Chaka, the Mark II…
Scenes flashed by ever faster. Gulmira. The dogfight. SHIELD. The present was coming ever closer.
Now scenes of Tony’s time in the Sandbox came, interspersed with events in the lives of his loved ones.
There were Pepper and Happy, driving down a road in hills above Malibu, when… No!… What looked like the same mysterious assassin who had killed Tony’s parents once again took the lives of those he loved.
Meanwhile, there was Rhodey, apparently unaware, willingly continuing to work with Obie and taking on the… Iron Soldier, really, that’s the best that they can do? It’s not even iron!…
There was the infamous attack on New York, with the atomic bomb that was nearly dropped on the city. Tony’s vision followed the missile on its redirected path up and through the wormhole for just a moment, catching a glimpse of the armada beyond, before the scene changed once more.
Following a trail from Tony’s first meeting with Loki, he was granted a view of the Realm of Asgard, an incomprehensible sight to his logical mind. The idea of a Realm on a flat disk, like something out of the mind of Terry Pratchett, still baffled him, but as he ‘flew’ closer, he could see layer upon layer of enchantments that held the Realm together.
Tony passed through the castle, spotting the All-Father, King Odin, on his throne before he moved onward along the rainbow bridge and approached the portal – where the Gatekeeper, Heimdall, watched over the Nine Realms.
As Tony sped by the guardian, it almost seemed as if the gold-eyed man sensed his passing. Tony didn’t stay long enough to know for certain.
He was thrown forward, down the Bifrost’s normal pathway through the cosmos until he once again found himself on Earth.
Tony had reached the present. Looking down from above, he could see his own unconscious body, propped up in a sitting position inside his cell. Nearby, Tony’s companion had been caught mid-convulsion, as he suffered through the Convergence’s grip.
With his mage sight, Tony could see how much the bright green of Loki’s magic – his seidr – was being corrupted – damaged – by the bronze glow of the manacles he wore.
But the Convergence was not done with Tony yet.
He moved onward, this time continuing forward in time beyond the present. There were flashes of a multitude of future paths that Tony’s life could take. He saw life, death, vengeance, defeat, joy, sorrow. All of these were possible conclusions for Tony’s tale.
But the journey didn’t end there. Onward Tony went, this time speeding past eons in the blink of an eye until he witnessed the end of the Earth itself. The sun had grown brighter and brighter, rendering the Earth uninhabitable long before it reached the end of its own lifetime.
As Tony watched in both awe and dismay, the sun’s evolution reached the point when rapid expansion and increase in illumination finally destroyed what remained of his beloved home planet before it too succumbed to its own loss of mass and energy.
At that moment, Tony truly understood his own place in the universe, both all-important and insignificant at the same time. He fell back into his body with an inaudible thud.
The Convergence had ended.
Chapter 24: Aftermath
The streets of New York City were crowded and snow covered, packed with commuters and tourists alike. People jostled and shoved past each other, uncaring, in a hurry to reach a multitude of destinations.
The anonymity suited James, a fitting environment given his mood. In the aftermath of recent events in England, he’d taken a leave from work – ostensibly to visit his family for the holiday. Of course, the reality was far more complicated. As he walked the route that he’d once taken to and from school, James thought back to certain recent conversations.
“Friend James, son of Rhodes,” Thor’s booming voice startled James. The Asgardian Prince, larger than life, as usual, strode up to the café where James had stopped for a brief coffee break.
With all of the damage done to Greenwich and elsewhere in Britain during the Convergence, SHIELD had all hands on deck in the clean-up efforts. To be honest, James would rather be one of the workers who were out doing manual labor. Instead, he was stuck dealing with the reams of paperwork that came with his position as the team leader for the Avengers.
“Thor,” James said with a nod of greeting. To James’ surprise, the Asgardians had stayed beyond the end of the Convergence, even offering aid in the recovery efforts. Now they were preparing to return to their Realm, and James was surprised at how much he would miss his new friends.
There was an honest quality about Thor and the others, one that lacked the Rogers’ frustratingly stubborn naivety. It was a refreshing change from the air of deception that he’d become accustomed to experiencing while working for SHIELD.
The Asgardians were real, in a way that James couldn’t fully explain. Still, with the Aether successfully extracted from Clint and sealed away for transport, there was no reason left for them to remain. From the sounds of things, the Asgardian Prince had other responsibilities waiting, after all.
“I am glad to have found you, shield-brother,” the blonde stated warmly. “I had hoped to speak with thee before our departure.”
“Oh?” James was intrigued. He had just seen Thor earlier that day, how was this different?
“Away from thy companions,” Thor clarified. “There is a sense of deception in their demeanors, one which thou lack.”
James flushed. “Thanks for the compliment, your Grace, but I assure you that SHIELD has no interest in deceiving you.”
“Perhaps… perhaps not…” Thor rumbled. “My people have told me of certain questions which were asked during our time here; troublesome inquiries.”
“Questions about my people’s ability to heal; to withstand damage.”
James frowned. It could be harmless, simply data to help in the case of injuries in future battles. Then again, it could be something far more damaging.
He hummed noncommittally, and Thor took the cue and continued.
“Eir believes that the questioning was related to the healing of those injured during the battle, but I am less certain. The… tone… of certain questions, as they were recounted to me, was odd. Fandral, in particular, was most concerned.”
That was one of Thor’s companions. He was the one who most reminded James of Tony. His playboy façade hid a keen intelligence. Fandral was also the one who’d stepped up most to fill in the role of Thor’s missing brother, the primary gatherer of information, in the stories told by Thor and others.
James had noticed how much certain SHIELD agents had perked up whenever the missing prince had been mentioned. It wasn’t anything specific, merely a sense that they were taking mental notes. While it could just be that the silver-tongued prince was a trickster god, an excellent avatar for SHIELD’s line of work, it was still worth marking.
“Well, I can assure you that as far as I am aware SHIELD has nothing but positive intentions regarding Asgard. We do have an excellent new treaty, after all.”
“I hope that you are right, friend Rhodes. Still… I did not wish to leave a new shield-brother without a word of warning.”
“And I do thank you for that, Prince Thor.” James hesitated and then turned the conversation to a more relaxed topic. “Now, when do your people depart?”
“Heimdall is awaiting our call. I believe that Eir is conducting one final examination of your Agent Barton. She wished to make sure that he is recovering properly from his experience with the Aether. Then we will be calling for the Bifrost.”
“Well then, shall we get you back to your men?”
James tossed his cold coffee in the nearby trash can and climbed to his feet. Together the two allies strode out of the shop patio, heading back to the SHIELD facility.
Despite the snow blanketing the ground, the scars from the alien invasion over a year before could still be seen in James’ Harlem neighborhood. While the devastation was nowhere near as bad as in Manhattan, the scattershot signs of battle – scorch marks along the sides of buildings, entire lots that remained little more than piles of rubble, little memorials marking places where heroic civilians had made brave last stands – were almost worse.
Unlike in Manhattan, where the government and wealthy corporations like Stark Industries had used the destruction as a chance to remake the city in their own preferred image, Harlem stood unchanged. Little had been done beyond clearing rubble out of the streets and into designated lots. There just wasn’t enough public attention to force the government to do the job.
To be fair, James knew that his family and others who had grown up in the area did in some ways prefer the lack of attention. He had heard the stories about how the government had forced those people who lost their homes in Manhattan but couldn’t afford the cost to rebuild to sell their land for a pittance of what it was worth. There was no room in the new Manhattan for the lower or even lower-middle class.
But that was an unfortunate reality of ‘gentrification’ all over; the lower classes were always those who suffered.
James’ thoughts turned from Thor to another odd conversation, this one with his SHIELD teammate.
“Clint! How are you feeling?”
A weak smile was the only response that the archer gave. The other man was leaning against James’ office door, a welcome interruption from the endless paperwork.
“Better than before,” he said non-committedly.
“That wouldn’t be hard.”
“Fair enough,” Clint said with a shrug, “… but the Director’s concerned. I’m two for two now.”
“Huh?” James was confused for a moment before he got it. “You have had bad luck with alien encounters, haven’t you?” He agreed wryly.
“Yup. Nat says I must give off some kind of pheromone or something.”
“That sounds like her.”
“Yeah. Anyways, I’ve been reassigned. Apparently, I ‘need to spend some time out of the field’. I just wanted to let you know that I’m taking a leave of absence from the Avengers in person.”
“I… see.” James nodded. “Well, I will certainly miss you; though perhaps not as much as some.” He raised an eyebrow and watched as Clint blushed.
Clint sobered. “In all seriousness, man, watch your back. There are some nasty rumors going around here, whispers of SHIELD being more proactive about planetary defense in the future.”
Really? James thought.
“You’re an honest man, Colonel Rhodes; you’re not cut out for the life of a spy. Don’t let the agency break you down.”
“So serious, Barton, you sound like you’ll never see me again.”
Clint sighed. “I’ve learned the hard way, Rhodes. Waiting until tomorrow almost always leads to tragedy. If a warning will keep you safe, it’s worth it.”
Turning on his heel, Agent Barton strode out the door; back the way that he had come.
Sure enough, Barton had disappeared into the bowels of SHIELD the next day. Even Nat claimed not to know where he had been reassigned. The formerly Russian Agent had grown more distant from James; focusing her attention on other things. In particular, James noticed that she was cozying up more with Captain America and spending more time as Obadiah Stane’s ‘girlfriend’.
And on that note, James’ mind was drawn back to the previous day’s meeting.
“Rhodes! I’ve been expecting you. Come on in, Colonel.”
“Of course, sir,” James said as he walked into the office of the Stark Industries CEO in downtown Manhattan.
“Good. Now, tell me, how did the suit hold up during the recent excitement?”
For the next half-hour, James proceeded to update Obadiah Stane on the performance of the Iron Soldier suit. Along the way, he shared details of his time at SHIELD almost unwittingly. It was clear from their conversation that the older man wanted James to maximize the suit’s potential. After all, the Iron Soldier was ‘free’ advertising for Stark Industries’ products.
It was only as the discussion neared its end that the tone of the conversation changed.
“You know, the biggest limitation of the suit is in the AI,” James said, offhandedly. “Has there been any progress on that front?”
“Unfortunately, our engineers are stalled there. It has proved impossible to develop a predictive algorithm capable of handling the necessary calculations in real time while still fitting within the suit. The other option, which would be to host the AI on a machine here at headquarters and then communicate in real-time, has potential. However, the team in R&D is worried about latency when you’re out in the field, as well as the potential for a signal drop in the middle of a fight.”
“Tony could do it,” James said almost absently, having seen JARVIS in action.
Stane’s smile froze.
“Yes, well, I am afraid that is not an option.”
“Why?” James went on, “I would think that it would be an excellent distraction from his situation, working on such a problem. In fact,” he mused absently, “Tony’s letters to me have grown stilted and lack his usual engineering flair. It’s almost as if…”
Stane sighed, interrupting James’ train of thought.
“I’ve been waiting to tell you this for a while now, but I suppose now is as good a time as any. The reason that young Anthony’s letters have been odd in the past several months is that they are not actually from him.”
“What?!?” James leaped from his seat in shock. “What do you mean, not from him? Where is he? Is he alright?”
“We’ve been keeping it a secret in order to avoid further media attention, but around the time of the attack on New York, there was a setback. One of the staff at the center had the television on, watching the battle footage live. Prompted by concern for those of us who work in the city, he demanded answers from the on-call doctor. In particular, he wanted to know about you and Ms. Potts.”
The thought of Gin had James glancing down for a moment, the grief no less despite the passage of time.
“Since the doctor on-call wasn’t one of his usual team, the woman was unaware that the truth about Ms. Potts death was being kept from Tony. She found your letter in his file and offered it for the boy to read. As he was already in a manic state, the shock of learning about Ms. Potts’ death was enough to do untold damage to his already fractured psyche. I am afraid that he fell into catatonia. The doctors are unsure that he will ever emerge from that state.”
Obadiah offered what was clearly intended as a comforting smile, though it was far too stiff to feel genuine.
“For now, all I can do is to instruct the staff at the institution to keep him comfortable. Meanwhile, our job is to make sure that if Anthony ever wakes up it won’t be to the discovery that he has suffered further losses. Can you help me to do that, son?”
James’ spine straightened out of habit at Stane’s commanding tone.
“Good. Now, I believe that we have finished our discussion?”
“Yes,” James nodded absently, his mind a whirl of thoughts. Tony, catatonic? How could this be?
“Sir,” he asked, as he stood up to leave. “Please ask the doctors not to keep up the charade in my case. I’d much rather be kept informed than protected from distressing news.”
“Of course, son. I’m certain that young Anthony would appreciate your concern if he were able.”
“Good day, Mister Stane.”
“To you as well, Colonel Rhodes.”
Catatonia, really? James’ brain simply refused to process the idea. Instead, it had begun to grow into an obsession, one which was in competition with everything else going on in there. SHIELD acting odd, there were gods and aliens out in the world, and now he had practically incomprehensible news about Tony?
It was no wonder that James was in desperate need of a break.
He had reached the entry to the old high-school, and as James looked up at the brick façade, he wondered.
What will the next year hold?
Chapter 25: The Culmination
“As you request, Mister President,” Alexander nodded at the Secret Service agent holding open the door as he stalked out of the Oval Office. His meeting with President Ellis had gone well, as he had expected. With the alien attack in England, terrorist activity in the Middle East, and other carefully curated rumors of conflict around the world, the President of the United States had quite easily been swayed into agreeing with Alexander’s plans.
Military preparedness was at an all-time high, and SHIELD would be granted increasing oversight powers, just in time for the launch of Project Insight. What had once seemed impossible now appeared inevitable.
True global domination was now HYDRA’s to claim. And Alexander was the one to finally make the dream a reality.
Oh, Alexander knew that he was not the sole leader of the organization. HYDRA had been designed for compartmentalization, after all. That was what had allowed it to continue after the fall of the branch under Johann Schmidt during World War II.
While Alexander’s branch had grown from the cadre of individuals like Armin Zola who had infiltrated the United States military and intelligence communities after the war, other branches had followed different paths. There was Baron von Strucker and his branch down in Argentina – the most directly Nazi branch. Then there was the Red Room and its partner institutions in Russia, Madame Hydra’s little assassins, and many others.
In fact, Alexander was fairly certain that the entire World Security Council were really the heads of the various HYDRA factions, not that he would ever confirm that fact. Plausible deniability was important.
Still, Alexander was proud to say that he had oversight of not one, but three heads of the Hydra these days.
There was the SHIELD branch, with its many tentacles worming their way around Director Nicholas J. Fury. Alexander had been worried at first that Fury’s morals would get in the way of HYDRA’s agenda, but the African-American man proved to be more ruthless and pragmatic that Alexander had expected. Just look at how he’d handled the Stark situation, after all.
Speaking of Stark; that man’s fate brought to mind the second of Alexander’s areas of oversight. The branch under Stark Industries’ re-instated CEO, Obadiah Stane. Back when Alexander had still been the SHIELD Director, he’d seen Stane as nothing more than a pawn for use in furthering HYDRA’s aims. However, events in Afghanistan and beyond changed things. Stane had become the head of a brand-new HYDRA cell, one which was focused on war profiteering. Alexander really was proud of his ‘protégé’, the way that he’d parleyed the Iron Soldier’s reputation into a publicity coup was a work of art. Besides, Alexander enjoyed the way that Stane tweaked Baron Von Strucker’s nose during their infrequent meetings. The pompous German bastard deserved a little ragging with all of his proclamations of Nazi superiority. The Nazis had been a failure, a costly one at that. But the Baron’s pride would not let him accept that fact.
The third branch of Alexander’s strategy was the most dilute; a web of cells within the various branches of the United States military behemoth. Like with SHIELD, this branch was not consolidated under a single leader. Instead, it was made up of a multitude of stand-alone cells, each with their own mission.
For example, he had a team keeping watch over General Ross and his work with the super-soldier serum, especially given his recent re-acquisition of the Hulk. If the general managed any true success in his experiments, it would immediately be passed up the chain to Alexander. As it was, the Hulk was of little use to Alexander, which was why he had allowed Fury and SHIELD to first protect and then sell the creature as they desired.
“Amy, what do you have for me?” Alexander asked as he reached the edge of the Secret Service perimeter, where one of his personal assistants waited. A statuesque blonde, Amy Marks was a ‘former’ SHIELD agent who had been removed from field service due to injuries taken on a mission that had gone wrong. As such, she was well trained in using her physical appearance to her advantage. Alexander was certain that she had used her time waiting at the perimeter with the Secret Service and other politicians’ staff wisely.
Agent Marks’ area of responsibility was the inter-connected web of favors and horse-trading that was the American Capitol. As such, she was his usual companion for visits to the White House and other government buildings. She had collected an invaluable amount of intelligence through the gossip that happened when numerous junior staffers were trapped waiting for their principals to finish with various ‘important’ meetings.
“We’ve got a confirmation from the Pentagon about your recent proposal. They’re fully onboard with the placement of one of Project Insight’s carriers in the skies over D.C.”
“The President’s staff has also already reached out regarding a statement to the American people.”
“You know the talking points. Go ahead and pass those along.”
Alexander offered his subordinate a sharp grin, which she easily returned.
Good staff really are such a treasure…
The pair climbed in the back of the subtly armored black town car that was Alexander’s usual mode of transportation.
“Where to next, Ms. Marks?”
Looking down at her ubiquitous tablet, the younger woman didn’t bother to hide her grimace.
“The Wakandan Embassy, Sir.”
Alexander’s grimace was a match to his companions.
Wakandans. Ugh. How he hated those smug bastards. They hid behind their façade of being just another impoverished African nation while deploying their agents all over the globe. If they had been amenable to HYDRA’s goals, it would be one thing, but the Wakandans stubbornly refused to get involved with those that they called ‘Colonizers’.
The closest that Alexander had gotten was back in the ’90s when SHIELD had managed to infiltrate the Oakland, California Black Supremacist group led by an undercover Wakandan prince named N’Jobu. However, when N’Jobu was killed, apparently by his own people, that connection had been lost. SHIELD still had a mole in Klaue’s organization; that particular black market weapons supplier had had more success in infiltrating the secretive nation than any other. Otherwise, they had little leverage.
It really was a shame that the young Stark had to be taken out of play, Alexander mused. Before his removal, he’d managed to build a connection to Wakanda with the Maria Stark Foundation’s joint projects with the Wakandan-run Usapho Foundation. That the program had remained intact despite Stark’s absence was a strong indication that the billionaire could have been an excellent link if he hadn’t been pulled from the board.
Still, the trade-off with Stane and SI was worth the inconvenience.
“What do we know about the reasons that the Wakandans have called for this meeting?” Alexander asked.
“King T’Chaka, this is a surprise,” Alexander said with a smile, offering his hand to the African monarch. “Your people gave no indication that you yourself would be present for this meeting.”
From their places beside the Wakandan king, his female bodyguards stiffened at Alexander’s approach.
Protective, aren’t they.
“As I only arrived in your country earlier today, this is not a surprise.”
T’Chaka’s voice was deep and even, the tone of a man long accustomed to power and comfortable in his place on the world’s stage. As much as he disliked the man, Alexander did have to admit that he was a formidable adversary. He was near the top of the Project Insight list for a reason.
Even once the Project launched, Alexander knew that they wouldn’t be able to pursue a Wakandan target for anything other than surveillance in the initial stages. With their tech advantage, there was simply no way to ensure that all of the targets were taken out, and even the hint of an attack would prompt retaliation.
No, for the greater good it was necessary to for SHIELD and others to keep their distance. So, Alexander was stuck doing business with the other man.
“Your people were less than clear about the reason for this meeting. Tell me, your majesty, what can the United States of America do for your country?”
“The United States? Nothing,” T’Chaka’s words were blunt and to the point, “but the World Security Council? That is another matter.”
“Yes. Our country was a bit concerned by the way that your ‘secret’ organization handled recent events in the United Kingdom. Negotiations with visiting aliens should not have been handled by SHIELD alone. The United Nations would have been the proper place for such matters.”
Alexander offered an insincere smile. “I entirely agree with you, your Majesty. However, there simply was not the time to arrange such a formal negotiation. Director Fury made the most reasonable call that he could.”
“That may have been true before the battle, but what about afterward? I happen to know that the aliens remained for some time after the fighting ended this time, unlike in New York.”
Damn it. The Wakandans must have had people on site in Greenwich and London.
Alexander ground his teeth.
“Prince Thor and his party were merely a scouting party, a war band of sorts. Things did not advance to the point of formal negotiations at this time. Should a more formal diplomatic party from Asgard appear at some point in the future, the UN will be brought into the negotiations at that time,” he said reluctantly.
“Very well,” the Wakandan king nodded his acceptance of Alexander’s promise. “On to other matters…”
By the time that Alexander finally escaped from the Wakandan embassy, it was evening and he was in desperate need of a place to release his anger.
“Take me home,” he ordered his driver abruptly. Perhaps arranging an assassination would cheer him up.
Chapter 26: Escape (or a New Beginning)
“How are you feeling?” Tony called out quietly.
Ever since the Convergence, things had changed in the Oubliette. While SHIELD knew better than to try and add electronic surveillance measures – between Loki’s seidr shorting things out and Tony’s skill with tech that was just asking for a breakout – it didn’t keep them from using more direct efforts.
Unlike in the past, when guards only showed up to provide meals, now the peace of the corridor was interrupted by random ‘patrols’ at all hours. In addition, the guard rotation had multiplied dramatically. Besides the quartet of familiar faces, Tony had counted at least two dozen strangers passing through the halls.
I guess secrecy has taken second place to information gathering. No doubt a consequence of Thor’s appearance on Earth, Tony mused.
He had told his mentor about his visions during the Convergence, and the older man had easily confirmed that his brother was the one seen.
“My value to SHIELD has increased exponentially,” Loki had commented idly during one of the interludes between their new visitors. “It’s too bad that they won’t get the results that they’re seeking.”
In the weeks following the Convergence, the Jotun sorcerer had failed to bounce back from the ordeal that he had suffered as a consequence of his magical bonds. Though the man was careful to hide his worsening condition from their visitors, with his mage sight Tony could see clear scars in Loki’s aura. It was likely that another such attack would mean his death.
With that in mind, Tony had begun to push himself still harder in his training. The Convergence had caused a breakthrough in internalizing both his magic and his place in the Universe; now he had to figure out how to translate his new-found self-awareness into magical prowess. Sight simply wasn’t enough. He needed to be able to manage either illusions, kinetic manipulation, or both.
Loki had been encouraging, though Tony was fairly certain that the alien did so because he wanted to offer his apprentice as much as possible before he passed. But Tony was determined. He would not let his mentor die; not again.
Loki glanced up from where he sat cross-legged in his own cell, apparently deep in meditation. In reality, Tony knew that the alien sorcerer was trying to marshal his limited strength, boosting his diminishing resources as best he could manage.
Flashing a wry smile, he replied, “better than I have been of late. Chaos is on the rise, my young apprentice. Even with my powers bound, I can sense its arrival on the wind.”
“You do recall what I told you of my titles on Asgard. Those are much more than simple words, Anthony. I am the God of Chaos, and as such, I can sense its presence, especially when located nearby.”
“Okay?” Tony was skeptical, but he’d learned to trust Loki above his own rational mind, at least where magic was concerned.
Before they could say anything further, Tony’s ears caught the sound of distant feet and the doors to the corridor being opened.
Unlike the usual pairs of guards marching in step, this time their visitor was alone and moving fast. The visitor approached the point where he could be seen and paused for an instant before proceeding. It was one of the friendlier of the new guards, a man who had been introduced to them as Agent Barton.
Reaching the controls to the cell doors, Barton reached into his pocket. Tony caught a glimpse of what the man held. It was a severed finger!
Even as Tony gaped in shock, processing, Barton then proceeded onwards. With a gloved hand, he flipped open the metallic cover, breaking the Faraday Cage that protected the electronics inside from Loki’s magic. Then, he entered a code into the numeric keypad before pressing the pad of his grisly prize on the accompanying sensor. With a groan, the wall of Tony’s cell opened for the first time since he’d been placed inside.
“Wha-?” Tony asked.
Barton flashed a wintry smile. “Let’s just say that I’m paying a debt,” he said, before turning to repeat the process with Loki’s door. “Everything’s in chaos right now. SHIELD is fighting itself. It turns out that a branch of HYDRA has been hiding inside of its nominal conqueror since before the organization was formally established. Now, I have my own plan for getting out of this clusterfuck, but I simply couldn’t leave either of you here to the tender mercies of whoever wins. I owe your brother,” he said with a wave at Loki before turning to Tony and adding, “and your friend that much.”
“Thank you,” Tony said, sincerely. Sweeping up those few of his encoded notes that could be dangerous in the wrong hands, he stepped out into the corridor.
That first step, crossing the cell’s threshold, caused a mental jolt, but Tony did his best to hide the reaction. Reaching out, he caught his mentor in a quick embrace. The moment that they came into physical contact for the first time, there was a shock and then a sense of recognition. Tony pushed what energy he could into Loki, needing to bolster the other’s flagging strength for the – likely – fight ahead.
“Come on, we’ve only got so long,” Barton urged. “Brett’s managed to put the cameras on a loop, but that’s only good for as long as no one shows up.”
So their friendly guard was Barton’s helper. That boded well.
Tony shot Loki a sharp grin as they took up positions flanking their new friend and strode down the corridor and out of the Oubliette. Despite the drabness of the slate grey concrete walls beyond, the change in perspective was exhilarating.
Barton led them in a fairly straight line, passing by a number of sealed doorways similar to the one that had lead into their prison.
“What’s behind those?” Tony asked, out of curiosity. Barton snorted. “Nothing that concerns you, Stark.” Then he shrugged, “oh, what the heck. I know that you’ve heard the term Oubliette for your little prison, right?”
“Well, it’s not just people that SHIELD keeps locked up down here. Behind those doors lie any number of things that the organization has collected over the years. It’s a dumping ground for anything that SHIELD wants to keep out of sight. Records, artifacts, trash… Who really knows?”
Catching sight of Tony’s intrigued look, he added, “-and no, we can’t go snooping. We’re on a tight schedule here, and besides, even my little friend here,” he patted his pocket with a grimace, “wouldn’t have access.”
Tony sighed dramatically. “Fine,” he said, with an over-exaggerated pout.
Barton laughed. “You’re just like in James’ stories, Stark.”
That made Tony perk up. “Rhodey?” he asked. “He sent you here?”
“Nah. I only found out about you after I got stuck here,” Barton admitted with a grimace. “I may not have been locked in a cell right next to you, but it was a close thing. I’m considered damaged goods.”
“You’ve been the host of something… powerful, haven’t you?” Loki asked, sweeping his gaze over the agent’s body. “It’s left its mark on your aura.”
“You could say that, yeah,” Barton agreed. “I’m just lucky that your brother’s people know their stuff. I thought I was a goner, for sure. Still, the Director wasn’t convinced that it was fully extracted. So he stuck me down here for ‘observation’ between guard shifts.”
“Ugh,” Tony said, sympathetic. He and Loki had already noticed Barton’s mystical scars and had spent some time discussing them. The Aether really was a rather nasty little artifact.
The trio reached a guard post, where Barton’s ally waited. In one corner, a slumped over form and blood-stained floor showed evidence of earlier fighting. Fishing his grisly trophy out of his pocket, Barton tossed the severed finger back to its owner.
“Any activity?” He asked.
“Lots of chatter on the radios, but nothing coherent. There are people announcing ‘Heil HYDRA’, others shouting about traitors, it’s a mess.”
“Then we should be able to make good time.”
Picking up a stack of fabric from the top of the console, Barton tossed them at Tony. “Both of you go ahead and change into these.”
The fabric turned out to be basic SHIELD uniforms, like those that the guards wore. “Boots are there.” He added, waving over to a corner.
Once the pair was in costume, the quartet headed out. Both guards bore a brace of weapons, including a sidearm strapped to one calf and a larger gun on the opposite side.
“We’d normally take the elevator instead of climbing the stairs,” Barton commented as they made their way up. “But with the mess, there’s no knowing who might be on the other side when the doors open. This is safer.”
When they reached the appropriate doorway, Barton glanced over at Tony before pulling his sidearm. “You know how to use this?” he asked.
“Second-generation arms manufacturer, what do you think?” he replied, checking it over. “Besides, if I hadn’t already, Rhodey would have taught me.”
“Fair enough. I can trust you at my back, right Stark?”
“As long as you’re helping me out.”
“Good. And you.” Here Barton glanced over at his fellow guard, and then pulled a rather wicked looking knife from a hidden sheath. “I understand from your brother’s stories that you’re an expert wielder of these things.”
Loki gave a wintry smile. “You could say that,” he admitted. “Good balance,” he added as he flipped it around.
The other agent sighed, and then offered Loki his own knife. “I’m going to want that back at some point,” he said as he passed it over. “It was a gift.”
“But of course,” Loki agreed easily.
“Now then, follow my lead.” And with that, the quartet headed out into the fray.
The main floors of the Sandbox were an absolute mess. Tony caught glimpses of labs, firefights, and even straight up brawls in the hallways as Barton hustled them through. At one point they ducked behind a column, hiding from Loki’s old nemesis – Garrett – as he led a troop of those proclaiming their HYDRA allegiance.
“Shocker, there,” Tony whispered to his companions, as Loki gave a grim nod. “Torture-happy fiends.”
“They may be headed down to your cell, then,” Barton advised. “Let’s get a move on before they sound the alarm.”
The last bit, getting into the hanger, was the toughest. Both Tony and Loki were forced to defend themselves, protecting Barton as he made his way over to one of the sleek black aircraft parked there. His partner had diverged from their side, headed over to the control center to make sure that they were able to get out of the facility.
“I’ve got my own exit strategy,” he said as he left them. “Just promise me one thing. Make sure that you don’t judge all of us on the actions of a few. There are good people in SHIELD, people who followed orders and found themselves in the midst of a mess not their own. I was a proud American soldier, but this… this is not what I signed up to do.”
“I understand,” Tony said with a nod, offering his hand. The other man clasped it, and then stalked off.
“Right,” Barton barked. “Come on, Stark, I want you in the copilot’s seat.”
Between their man in the control booth and Barton’s skill as a pilot, they managed to clear the Sandbox’s airspace with little trouble.
“That’s the extent of my plan,” Barton admitted wryly. “Do either of you have an idea for a next step?”
Tony and Loki exchanged a glance. While Barton seemed genuine, neither of them was inclined to trust anyone beyond each other. Finally, Loki spoke. “Head for these coordinates,” he said, rattling off a set of numbers.
“A safe-house,” was the reply, but from the look on the mage’s face, Tony was pretty sure that he knew the truth. The coordinates were probably a blind alley, the site of one of the many passages between the Realms that his mentor had once used to reach Midgard.
“Okay, then,” Barton said laconically. “Not sure why you want to go into the depths of the Kyrgyzstani Mountains, but whatever floats your boat – metaphorically speaking, that is. It’ll take us a couple of hours in this beauty, so feel free to make yourselves comfortable.”
“Thanks, Barton,” Tony said with a nod, before climbing out of the copilot’s seat. “I’m going to grab the head and then see what I can scrounge back there. We missed dinner in all the excitement earlier.”
“Should be some water, maybe some power bars or MREs, but I wouldn’t expect anything gourmet,” Barton replied with a shrug. “When you’re done, bring me whatever’s left would ya.”
Once Loki crossed the threshold of the pilot’s compartment and left Barton’s view, he sagged. Tony immediately hurried over to catch him, helping him towards one of the benches that lined the walls of the cargo compartment.
“Oh God,” he said as he eased his mentor down onto the cushioned surface. “What can I do, Lokes?”
Loki reached up, placing one hand against the side of Tony’s face.
“I’m afraid that today’s excitement was more than my body could handle in its weakened state,” he admitted reluctantly. “I just need to rest.”
But Tony knew that Loki was lying. Rest simply wasn’t enough anymore. He was dying…
No. I refuse.
Reaching down into his core, to that stock of power that Loki had helped him to find and access, Tony delved deep. Wrapping one ‘arm’ around a thick section, he pulled it up to the surface. Then, just like he would when working with metal, he formed the power into a spike. He placed the pointed end against one of the nodes that made up the Svadilfari’s working, the chains which kept Loki bound.
Then, with all of his might, he slammed the bulk of his mystical strength against the other end of the spike.
He tried again.
A third time.
This time, there was a crack. Not an audible one, no, but one that he could hear in his bones. Opening his Mage Sight, Tony spotted the source. A tiny fracture had appeared at one point within the web.
Encouraged, he kept at it, pounding away again and again.
Cracks continued to form, propagating out from the fracture point that he’d made. Still, it wasn’t enough. But Tony refused to give up.
Marshaling up the last of his strength, he released one last strike.
With a massive crash, the web shattered. As blackness encroached upon his vision, Tony smiled. He’d done it!
“Stark,” a hand at his shoulder woke Tony. Looking up blearily, it took him a moment to recognize Barton’s concerned gaze.
“Barton,” he said muzzily. “Shouldn’t you be flying the bird?”
“We reached your friend’s coordinates an hour ago. Once I landed, I came back and found you both passed out here. I’ve been trying to wake you up ever since.”
“Loki!” Tony cried.
“He’s still unconscious, but his breathing’s steady. In fact, he looks better than he did,” Barton commented as Tony climbed to his feet and rushed over to his mentor’s side.
“I don’t know what it was that you were doin’ back here earlier, but I could feel it,” he added, rubbing his chest. “Whatever it was, it was powerful.”
“So, what’s outside?” Tony asked, not wanting to talk about what he’d done. Not until he knew for sure if it had worked.
“Nothing much. We’re in the heart of the mountains, with peaks all around us. I did find this little landing platform in front of a cave right at the coordinates that your buddy gave, so that’s where I parked.”
Glancing out the open rear hatch of the aircraft, Tony could see the cave’s entrance. To his Mage Sight, it glowed with seidr in Loki’s distinctive green.
“Look, Barton, I appreciate all of your help, but right now I just need us out of SHIELD’s hands entirely. I don’t trust your little organization not to have an auto-recall or at least a tracker on your craft here.”
“Wait, you want to go out there, in the wilderness, with an unconscious alien as your only companion?” Barton asked, startled.
“Yup. Trust me, there’s more to this spot than can be seen with the naked eye.”
“Yeah, the hairs on my arms told me that,” Barton agreed, “but you’re no alien magician Stark, you’re an engineer.”
Tony shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“Fine,” Barton huffed. Pulling out a collapsible stretcher, he helped to load the unconscious Loki onto it, and then the pair carried the surprisingly heavy alien into the mouth of the cave. As they crossed the boundary ward that carried the mark of Loki’s magic, the man stirred. Tony could see his seidr reaching out to absorb the residual energy that the ward had held. As it did so, Loki’s core flared. It was weak but was already starting to show signs of recovery.
The sight made Tony grin.
He’d done that.
After a bit more negotiation, Tony managed to convince Barton that they would be best served if he left, taking the jet with him. If he could confuse the trail, any pursuers would be looking for Tony and Loki in all of the wrong places.
“If it comes to it,” Tony said to Barton as he left, “I want you to tell anyone who comes looking for us that we died due to injuries taken during the escape.”
“Even the Colonel?”
“Okay, Stark. But I hope that you know what you’re doing.”
Barton headed up the ramp and onboard his vessel. When he turned to close the door, he offered one final word. “God speed, Tony Stark. And good luck.”
Once he was hidden from view by the closing hatch, Tony spun on his heel and headed back into the cave. He didn’t bother to watch as Barton flew the last bit of SHIELD out of sight. He had promises to keep.
Now, what was the name of that place that Loki had mentioned in the Himalayas? Oh yes, Kamar Taj…
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II